Stripping Down For Art In The Naked City

Installation View, New Museum, New York, 2011. Photo: Benoit Pailley

There can be no “art,” the English poet William Blake wrote, “without naked beauty displayed.” Centuries have passed since Blake last ran riot in King George IV’s London, but the spirit of his confession runs deep in the work of Belgian artist Carsten Höller, whose exhibit, “Experience,” made its debut in New York City’s New Museum this week.

Höller’s project comes to Manhattan at a time when museums across the country are making fresh efforts to bewitch a new generation of art enthusiasts. Their promise: Be brave, be open, and you can join the pageant.

The day before the Holler exhibit opened, performance artist Marni Kotak gave birth to a baby boy, Ajax, at Brooklyn’s nearby Microscope Gallery. reported Kotak was surrounded by friends, family, “and a handful of randomly chosen participants.”

At “Experience,” the theme is total immersion — Please touch the art! — and the visitor is of a piece with the work. The salty pool that stirs inside a “sensory deprivation” chamber is the devotional centerpiece, but there’s rarely a wait to enter. As the guard who stands outside the translucent-walled hut is quick to remind: “If you want to see it, you have to participate.” And by participate, he means get naked and float around in complete silence, often with complete strangers.

Artists, writers, and assorted eccentrics have for years used sensory-deprivation to calm their inner rumblings, but what Holler has done, explained curator Gary Carrion-Marayari, “is turn a very private experience into something very public.”

“We were unsure of the reaction,” he said. “We didn’t think many people would want to try it, but we ran out of towels yesterday. We have a very adventurous audience.”

He’s right. What can begin as a very private moment in the pool’s heavily-salinized water — a flood of ethereal calm  — quickly becomes something very, as they’re so fond of saying at the New Museum, “shared.” For strangers to public nudity, it can be a bit of a shock. But the initial blushes fade and there you are just minutes later, drifting, another vessel in a mini-sea dotted with your neighbors’ naked forms.

Once you’ve dried off (Not too much! That soaked scalp is a mark of honor in these parts) it’s time to sample from a menu of interactive mind-benders, a new treat waiting around every curling corner.

To wit, there’s a corridor with walls that may or may not be moving as you pass through; a giant bowl of white, pill-shaped capsules accompanied by cups, a vat of water, and a sign reading, “Please take only one”; a series of virtual reality headsets, one taking you for a walk (Or you’re taking it? It’s hard to say) in a snowy forest; and another that appears to turn the space in front of you upside-down. All this for $12 and your signature on a meticulous medical waiver.

“You think of Alice in Wonderland,” Carrion-Marayari said. “Take the pill, jump down the slide. (More on that slide in a moment.)  Not everything in the exhibition is necessarily ‘fun.’ It’s actually kind of strange, seeing the space around you moving at an odd speed. It may be enjoyable, but it’s never comfortable.”

Never comfortable and though thrilling, not anything entirely new. Waves of interest in interactive and installment art have crested and broken over the past four decades, but Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory museum has been there all along, a hub for the genre’s elite since 1977. Lindsay O’Leary, an artist there now, gives some credit to social media for the latest surge.

“I feel like the world is picking up on it again,” she said. “People want to interact. Socially now we are a lot more comfortable sharing with strangers.”

You might even strike up a conversation with one on the New Museum’s fourth floor, while waiting for a turn at the exhibit’s most popular feature: The “pneumatic mailing system” (or, in simpler terms, “the slide.”) There are two paths back down to the second level. At one side of the floor, an elevator; at the other, a hole in the ground. There is a half-sheath of stainless steel piping curled up and over the gap, and a bored security guard with a box full of canvas sacks seated by its side. This is the faster way.

Conceptually, it’s rather simple. Why walk when you can slide and, inevitably, scream like a lunatic all the way through a twisting 102-foot chute? At your arrival two stories down there is another, equally impassive guard. He clears the frazzled traveler off the waiting mat and relays to his colleague upstairs that they’re “ready for the next.” All the while, the space’s bright lights are flashing — a jarring enough scene that people who have suffered from generalized epilepsy are warned of the potential risk.

But for Höller, it is that sense of risk (real or imagined), the fear of falling, the scene of strangers eating from his massive pillbox and asking one another with a half-smile, “So, what do you think’s in these things?” that gives life to his creation. The museum doesn’t do private tours and for good reason, without people to share your experience, there would be no “Experience” at all.

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